Mark Reviews Movies

Our Kind of Traitor


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Susanna White

Cast: Ewan McGregor, Naomie Harris, Stellan Skarsgård, Damian Lewis, Jeremy Northam, Khalid Abdalla, Mark Gatiss, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Velibor Topic, Saskia Reeves, Alicia von Rittberg

MPAA Rating: R (for violence, language throughout, some sexuality, nudity and brief drug use)

Running Time: 1:47

Release Date: 7/1/16

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Review by Mark Dujsik | July 1, 2016

There are at least two traitors of note in Our Kind of Traitor, an adaptation of the novel of the same name by John le Carré. In a way, the title isn't so much a statement as it is a question. Which of those two traitors is "our kind"? For that matter, to whom is the "our" referring, anyway? Since this is le Carré, it should come as no surprise that there isn't a simple or even a single answer to either of those questions.

The most obvious traitor is Dima (Stellan Skarsgård), an accountant for the Russian mafia. At an expensive restaurant in Marrakech, Morocco, Dima meets Perry (Ewan McGregor), a poetics professor from London who's on vacation with his wife Gail (Naomie Harris). Gail has some work to which to attend, leaving Perry alone at the restaurant. Dima invites him over for a drink and takes him to a party.

The two men hit it off quite well, and Dima later invites Perry and Gail to his daughter's 18th birthday party. That's where Dima takes Perry aside and reveals his job to the professor. Dima knows of all the criminal organization's money laundering schemes, because he helped put them in motion. He also knows that the mafia's new leader (Grigoriy Dobrygin) is looking to open a bank in London and that the mob has ties to members of British government. Dima is desperate, because the upcoming transfer of all the mafia's accounts will lead to the end of his usefulness to them. At that point, he—and, Dima fears, his family—will become a liability to them.

In the hopes of receiving asylum in the United Kingdom, Dima gives Perry a flash drive to pass on to the government, which he does at the airport. Hector (Damian Lewis), an agent with British Intelligence, takes the lead on the investigation, and eventually, Perry and Gail become part of the negotiations between Dima and Hector to obtain the necessary information to take down the people involved in the scheme.

Hector is convinced that his former colleague and current Member of Parliament Aubrey Longrigg (Jeremy Northam) is one of those involved. He also has a personal vendetta against Longrigg, leading Hector to run the entire operation off the books when his boss (Mark Gatiss) decides that such an investigation isn't worthwhile.

There's plenty of plot here, as Dima plays a charade of innocence around his comrades and Hector attempts to negotiate a deal for the protection of Dima and his family without any official help from the government. Caught in the middle is Perry, a decent man who feels obligated to help a relative stranger in need, and in between that middle ground is Gail, who is already distrusting of her husband after he had an affair with a student. She comes around to her husband's way of seeing Dima's predicament after seeing what photographs of what the mafia does to people who get in their way.

The driving question, apart from the two we got to a while back, is whether or not there is any room for decency in this world of espionage and financial crime. The moral inquiry nothing new, but it is more important to Hossein Amini's screenplay than the workings of the plot. There's always a sense here of these people trying to do the right thing, even as they find themselves hindered by bureaucratic obstacles and, more to the point, unsure of what that right thing might be at any given moment. The three major players—Perry, Dima, and Hector—all have moral shortcomings, too, so there's always a sense of misgiving that any of them could stray from the right course.

The film is directed by Susanna White, who offers a few tense sequences in which Dima's charade becomes complicated. At a spa in Paris, he has to maneuver between going about his business with his mafia colleagues, who are suspicious of the idea that Perry and Gail are simply acquaintances he met on vacation and nothing more, and finding secluded spaces for a clandestine meeting with Hector. In Bern, Switzerland, Dima is forced to sign over his fate, while his family members find themselves dependent on a plan orchestrated by Hector, who sees them as a distant second in his objectives. White and Amini's dedication to these characters over the plot is particularly critical during the film's only scene of gunplay, which takes place entirely off-screen. The focus in that scene is instead on a group of people hiding from the violence.

The performances are solid. McGregor holds the film's shaky moral ground in place as the right man in the wrong situation. Harris may have little to do plot-wise, but she is vital in the way Gail becomes more invested in the fates of complete strangers. Lewis plays the sort-of spy with the right combination of amoral efficiency and idealistic determination. The stand-out is Skarsgård as an outwardly blustering and inwardly tortured man who is willing to do anything to save his family.

The story of Our Kind of Traitor is relatively straightforward, but there's a seemingly throwaway revelation late in the film that puts the entire thing into a different perspective. It involves the questions raised by the title. Yes, Dima is a traitor to his organization, making him, in theory, the British government's preferred kind, but then there's the issue of Longrigg. Consider how the film potentially makes him one who simultaneously benefits two, apparently diametrically opposed groups, and that's where the old, le Carré brand of cynicism is at its most potent.

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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